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What Does It Mean to Be Human?

As biomedical science and technology continue to advance, many experts are concerned about the ethics of these advancements, and believe that America’s law and public policies do not sufficiently protect and honor human life. In fact, our nation’s bioethics often disregard what it even means to be human.

So argues Dr. Carter Snead in his book What It Means to be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics. Dr. Snead is a professor and Director of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame, and he joins host Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s episode of Family Policy Matters to discuss his book.

Dr. Snead argues that our nation’s bioethics are flawed in three major areas: abortion, reproductive technologies, and assisted suicide. In these areas, our nation’s laws and policies fall short due to a lack of understanding of what it means to be human.

“I argue in the book that all law is aimed at protecting or promoting the flourishing of human persons,” continues Dr. Snead, “and as a result, the law has to operate from prior assumptions about what a human person is […] We should start with the question of what it means to be human.”

Human beings are vulnerable, dependent upon one another, and “subject to natural limits.” By failing to understand these facts, the law in the areas of abortion, reproductive technology, and assisted suicide “leaves behind the weak and the vulnerable, the elderly, the disabled, children—both born and unborn—and other key members of the human family…”

“What we need to survive are networks of people who are willing to make the good of others their own good.”

Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Dr. Carter Snead unpack how each of the aforementioned areas of law and public policy fail to understand what it means to be human.

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: What Does It Mean to Be Human?

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Despite the noble beginnings in the field bioethics, one of the world’s leading experts says America’s bioethics overwhelmingly disregards our human reality and results in consistently putting vulnerable human lives in peril.

Well, we’re joined by that expert, Dr. Carter Snead, Director of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture. He’s professor of law and concurrent professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, and he’s going to discuss his book, What It Means to be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics.

Dr. Carter Snead, welcome to Family Policy Matters.

DR. CARTER SNEAD: Thanks for having me on. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: It’s interesting, I did see that your book was declared one of the Top 10 books of 2020. What was it about the book that created such a stir?

DR. CARTER SNEAD: I was gratified by that. The Wall Street Journal in particular singled it out for that recognition. I was just very pleased by it. I think what people identified with, even though the book is about public bioethics, which is a branch of law and public policy that relates to the ethics arising from advances in biomedical science and biotechnology. It’s deeper than that and meant for a much broader audience to really reflect on what it means to be and flourish as a human being, which is I think of interest to everyone, no matter what their area of focus or expertise happens to be.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So what was so unusual about the stance that you took in your book?

DR. CARTER SNEAD: It was surprising probably to some people that the principal argument of the book—which is the best way to understand the disputes in law and public policy relating to bioethics, and in particular the disputes involving the law and policy relating to abortion, relating to assisted, reproductive technologies, and the law and policy concerning end of life decision making and assisted suicide. That the best way to understand all of those areas of the law involving science and morality and justice and all the related issues that are implicated in those areas is through the lens of what I describe as anthropology. I don’t mean by that the sort of modern academic discipline of anthropology—people going to far away countries and studying the habits and practices of people that they’re unfamiliar with. What I mean is simply anthropology in its original sense, which is to say what it means to be and flourish as a human being.

I argue in the book that all law is aimed at protecting or promoting the flourishing of human persons, and as a result, the law has to operate from prior assumptions about what a human person is and what a human person’s flourishing is—what constitutes his or her thriving. As a result, the richest way to understand these areas that implicate our ourselves and our relationships to one another so dramatically as bioethics does, where we should start with is the question of what it means to be human, according to the legal principles. If you drill down into laws of these three vital conflicts that I’ve already mentioned, what I found was the vision of the human person and human identity and human flourishing was woefully inadequate, false, and impoverished. It had a vision of what a person is that doesn’t come close to capturing our lived experienced, and in particular, our experience as human beings that live in the world as bodies, that is as fragile bodies in time. We are vulnerable, we are dependent upon one another, and we are subject to natural limits. That situates us in a kind of relationship to one another, where we have to take care of each other.

But the vision of personhood at the core of the law of abortion in America, the law relating to assisted reproduction, and the law connected to end of life of decision-making misses that, and simply describes and identifies human beings as coextensive with their wills. You and I are defined by our desires, by our mind, by our capacity to generate future directed plans, and to pursue them, and there is something true about that. That is a feature of some aspects of life, but that doesn’t come close to describing the entirety of what we are, who we are, and by missing our embodiment, by missing the fact that we are vulnerable and dependent upon one another etc., the law in these areas leaves behind the weak and the vulnerable, the elderly, the disabled, children—both born and unborn—and other key members of the human family that the anthropology of expressive individualism—which is the name of the vision of the human personhood that is assumed by those three legal areas—fails to capture and fails to understand.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Make the link; take us all the way around then. So, if we have this basis in our law that basically emphasizes the individual, I guess you could say, then how would that then have an effect on say an attack on an unborn child?

DR. CARTER SNEAD: We’re on the cusp, I hope, of the Supreme Court making a serious change in the American law of abortion. But as it stands right now, if you look at the precedent of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey—which are the two Supreme Court precedents that essentially define almost the entirety of the law of abortion in America—if you look at the way Justice Blackman in Roe v. Wade defined the human context of abortion and discovered (or let’s say invented) a right to abortion, the way he invented that right to abortion was by describing the human scenario in which the question of abortion arises as a conflict between strangers—between a woman and this strange invading being that is something less than a person, namely her unborn child. He describes the context of abortion as a conflict among strangers, isolated strangers, fighting over the bodily resources and the human future of the woman.

So, that’s how he describes it. He says the burdens of an unwanted pregnancy are such that there must be a right to abortion in the Constitution, even though it’s not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution; even if you admit that there’s a concept of privacy that’s operative in the Constitution, the context of abortion is a stretch. Even from that perspective, he says, “No, it’s so important that women be able to defend themselves against this intruding stranger that’s dependent upon them, that wants to make a claim on their body and will frustrate their future directed plans. The only thing that we can do is to read into the Constitution a right for the woman to use lethal violence to fend off this aggressor, this unborn stranger.”

Right there, you see immediately the anthropology of expressive individualism animating justice Blackman’s reasoning. He doesn’t see the world as interconnected beings; he doesn’t see the human category of parent and child, mother and child. What he sees are isolated strangers, isolated individuals who have no natural connection to one another. One is trying to threaten the interest of the other, and therefore it’s important to give the threatened party a license to use private violence. That is the root of the right to abortion, the conceptual roots of the right to abortion in American law.

If Justice Blackman instead had taken seriously the embodied relational nature of mother and child and said, “Oh, well, this is not a conflict among strangers fighting over scarce resources that belong to one of the two of them. Instead, what this is is a crisis involving a mother and her child.” If you describe it that way, you don’t get a right of one party to kill the other. What you get is a mobilization, or at least for the political branches to mobilize, to come to the aid of that mother and child and to provide for the care of both.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: How do we move forward then? I guess affecting the hearts and minds of people is a good start, but how does this start to make its way into law?

DR. CARTER SNEAD: So, the good news is in the vital conflicts of assisted reproductive technology law and policy, and the issue of end-of-life decision making and assisted suicide, we are—in this country at the moment—still free to govern ourselves. We can have these conversations, in the deliberative branches of government we can have conversations about and when we debate different propositions: should assisted suicide be legal, or should it not be? We can talk about it through the lens of an anthropology of embodiment. We can talk about it and see the connections to the weak and the vulnerable, and to not simply assume that this is just about us.

Another negative, unfortunate example of this is when California legalized assistance suicide a few years ago. Jerry Brown, the Governor of California, issued a statement when he signed the bill into law that was entirely self-regarding. He said, “I’m very excited.” (I’m paraphrasing.) He said something like, “I’m very excited to sign this bill to give me the freedom to make an existential decision at the end of my life, so that I could choose a pathway to end my own life if in my judgment, that’s what I need and that’s what the end of my story should be.”

Well, that’s an entirely isolated, individuated view of what life is. He didn’t think to consider the weak and the vulnerable poor, the disabled, the elderly, members of racial minorities who are threatened already by aspects of our healthcare system. And he didn’t think about the dangers that would come to them in terms of fraud and abuse and coercion and duress. When you introduce into that system the option of assisted suicide—where insurance companies won’t pay for chemo, but they’ll pay for drugs for you to take your own life—or when the sort of epidemic of elder abuse that we’re experiencing right now in this country includes this other mode of exploitation and harm for our elders.

So, what we need to survive are networks of people who are willing to make the good of others their own good, and there are certain kinds of virtues and practices we have to embrace in order to shore up and sustain those networks. We don’t need the freedom to kill ourselves. What we need is a thicker understanding of our relationships to one another, where we can ask for things from other people and we can understand that other people have claims on us that we don’t choose.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: When you talk about assisted suicide, I think a lot of times people say, “Well, I don’t want to put my kids through that,” or “I don’t want to put my family through that.” Do you make the case that actually that’s a good thing for the children to do, is to be required to take care of someone who’s dying?

DR. CARTER SNEAD: Parents and children exist in a kind of relationship to one another, where they are obliged by virtue of the natural relationship to care for one another, and they have claims on one another that they don’t have to earn. So, let’s take the other end of life for an example: a baby doesn’t have to earn the right to be cared for by his or her parents. Parents at the end of their lives don’t have to earn the right to be cared for by their children. It’s what it means to stand in that kind of natural relationship of parent and child. And you said something very important a moment ago; you said some people want to end their own lives so that they’re not a burden to their children. But one of the principal arguments for assisted suicide is the principle of autonomy and saying, “Well, freedom is the most important thing; we can’t stand in the way.” But a person who feels like a burden to another person is not operating at the height of their freedom. They are operating under some kind of internal duress, imagining that they’re a burden to someone else. Studies have shown that most people who feel like they’re a burden to their children, in fact, their children don’t feel that way at all. So, it seems to me that it’s not actually a free choice, and it’s also not an isolated choice, because a person who’s taking their own life doesn’t merely affect them; it affects their family; it affects their entire community. Can you imagine for a moment if you learned after the fact that your mother or father took his or her own life because they were worried about being a burden to you? That would be an indelible wound in the psyche of a child.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So, we’ve talked about abortion. We’ve talked about end of life/assisted suicide. But you also concentrate in your book on artificial reproduction. Now, why do you include that?

DR. CARTER SNEAD: We have a kind of wildly unregulated world of assisted reproduction, which in some ways is the opposite of the circumstances we have in the context of abortion, where the Supreme Court has said basically to the political branches, “You guys can’t do anything in this space because we’ve decided that we are the body that regulates abortion through a spacious interpretation to Constitution.” It’s the opposite effect in that we have nothing but lawlessness in the context of assisted reproductive technology, where there’s essentially no limits on what people can do in order to have a child that they want. The argument in the book is this state of lawlessness also rests upon a kind of false vision of what persons want, about what patients want—people who are suffering from infertility, what they want.

If the law were to take seriously what people need—what patients need—in this context, it wouldn’t look like the current landscape that it looks like right now; it would look like something quite different. What a person who’s suffering from infertility wants is to be a parent, not to impose their will. They want to be a parent. It seems to me that we should be paying closer attention and practicing medicine in a different way with the idea that is consistent with what the parents want, namely to be parents. So, when this person wants to be a parent, every single step you take in that process should be mindful of the consequences for the child who will be born, as well as for the mother who is being intervened in using these techniques. But that’s not how the law is configured right now, because the law operates according to the assumption that what people want and need is simply unbridled freedom without any interference in the law at all. I think that’s not an accurate picture of what IVF patients want or what they need.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: We are just about out of time for this week, though. But before we go, Dr. Snead, where can our listeners go if they just need to learn more about your work?

DR. CARTER SNEAD: The book itself, What It Means to Be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics, can be found wherever people like to buy their books—Amazon, or you can go to the Harvard University Press website. And my own work, also, people can just Google me—Carter Snead at Notre Dame—and see other things that I’ve written in this space. And if they want to, they can send me an email.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Dr. Carter Snead, thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters.

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